2013 has been quite a year for the "coming-of-age" movie. Some of the year's best films - Mud, The Kings of Summer and now The Spectacular Now (currently in theaters) - all deal with themes of growing up, finding love and/or discovering some hard truths about what it means to become an adult. Of these three films, The Spectacular Now may be the most layered and unexpected, featuring two of the best performances of the year by two of Hollywood's brightest shining stars.
Of course, I'm talking about Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Teller stood out in his first real movie role, 2010's Rabbit Hole, following it up with a scene-stealing, memorable supporting performance in the 2011 remake of Footloose. In The Spectacular Now, Teller plays Sutter, a popular high-school-er who loves to party, have fun and live in the now.
Those attributes aren't really what you would look for in the ideal student, and Sutter looks poised to become the sort of person who others remember as a nostalgic legend, if he's remembered at all. Sutter has no vision of the future for himself and doesn't even consider life outside of his small town and school. He has a job working a cash register at a men's boutique and he carries with him a flask filled with liquor at all times. Enter Aimee.
Aimee, played by Shailene Woodley, is your typical "good girl" who ends up tutoring Sutter, per his request. Woodley is a marvel in this film, oozing youthful excitement and innocence and acting with what seems like effortless ease. Aimee is taken aback that this cute, popular boy would fancy her and she slowly opens up to her first real boyfriend. Sutter struggles with the perception - from his guy friend who thinks Aimee is way beneath Sutter's social status to the roadblock it creates with his ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson) - but slowly falls for Aimee's unfiltered sweetness.
If the plot sounds like your run-of-the-mill teen romance, you'll be pleasantly surprised by what comes next. The Spectacular Now takes some spectacular and surprising turns, becoming more of an essay on perspective than just another boy-meets-girl movie. Finally having something "good" in his life, Sutter is infused with the confidence to seek out his estranged father (Kyle Chandler, giving a very small but rich performance), against the wishes of his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sister.
The result of Sutter's journey is a poignant experience that offers some insights into his sheltered soul. Almost like being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future, Sutter sees his father and suddenly - jarringly - sees the consequences of what living strictly "in the now" can do to a person, to a family.
The character of Sutter is incredibly compelling, starting out as your cliched "party-hard" teenager and evolving before our eyes. It's no easy task, but Miles Teller pulls it off in convincing fashion. Shailene Woodley plays Aimee so open and honest, she is not only easily identifiable but overwhelmingly real. Never preachy, the two navigate their characters through waves of expected plot points - meeting for the first time, their first sexual encounter, their first fight - and it's through their performances that the filmmaker (James Ponsoldt) delivers much of the film's meaning.
The Spectacular Now sets us up on familiar ground and then throws us a curve. It's not uncommon for a character to grow and change during the course of a film, but rarely do we care so much.
There is a reason that this party animal drinks and perhaps an inherent, genetic reason why he may never leave the confines of his hometown. It's easy for those on the outside to chalk it up to work ethic, or making poor "choices." We understand and sympathize with Sutter yet we understand what Aimee sees in him. Conversely, we see why Sutter pushes her away, when he does.
This is a complex coming-of-age story not easily communicated in a 99-minute film. So much could have gone wrong, or came across as unauthentic, but every intrinsic note was spot-on. It's quite an achievement really, a spectacular piece of cinema that ends not with shock, tragedy or happily ever after, but the way a realistic story should: Untidy. It's no cliff-hanger, but we are left satisfied, with a sense of hope not only for the now, but for the future.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Run Time: 1 hour, 39 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Masam Holden, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicci Faires
Directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed, Off the Black)
Opens locally on Friday, Aug 23, 2013 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time